The Tunisian uprising raises so many questions that it is difficult to focus on only one or two, but one of the intriguing aspects of the January 2011 events is that they simultaneously strengthened and smashed several longstanding pieces of conventional wisdom about how political change might come to Arab countries. Tunisia showed that the youth bulge about which demographers and other analysts have been fretting for two decades is indeed a political time bomb. At the same time, Tunisia debunked the long-held analysis that only a country with a cohesive political opposition can overthrow an authoritarian system.
The Tunisian uprising was rooted in the problems of youth unemployment, though it leapt quickly from there to protests about official corruption and lack of democracy. The Middle East youth bulge—generally defined as a period in which there is a relatively high proportion of 15 to 24 year olds among the adult population of any country—and its attendant problems of youth unemployment, overburdened educational systems, and the postponement of marriage have preoccupied scholars of the region since at least the early 1990s. Looking at the experience of other regions, scholars reasonably enough theorized that the youth bulge could lead to political instability in the Middle East. Demographer Ragui Assaad, for example, said in a 2008 interview
that “The presence of large number of underemployed and frustrated young men, with potential access to weapons, is often a recipe for civil conflict. Thus the youth bulge could provide significant demographic dividends, but if not dealt with with the right policies, could result in political instability and civil conflict.”
Connecting the youth bulge with political instability in theory is one thing, however, and seeing it actually unfold on the streets of an Arab country is quite another. It is the painful similarities between Tunisia and other Arab countries in this regard that give pause. The percentage of Tunisians between 15 and 24—21 percent in 2005—is quite similar to that in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries. Although figures often are unreliable, a 2007 analysis
by Assaad and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi estimated youth unemployment for these countries to be between 20 and 40 percent, and then in addition there is rampant underemployment. Certainly the other grievances of Tunisians—corruption, human rights abuses, lack of meaningful political participation, a leader who twisted the country’s laws and constitution in order to remain in power for an entire generation—are widely shared in the region.
Until the recent events in Tunisia, however, the theory went that even with all those reasons for public discontent, no Arab population could overthrow an authoritarian leader without a cohesive opposition movement. Analysts cited the weakness of political parties in the Arab world as one of the main reasons for the persistence of authoritarian governments. And yet the Tunisian opposition was among the weakest in the Arab world: none of the three small opposition parties (the Democratic Progressive Party, Renewal Movement, and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) that initially joined the transitional government, nor the exiled Islamist Renaissance (Nahda) Party, played a significant role in the uprising. They certainly did not form a cohesive front capable of putting pressure on the government, and none of their leaders are charismatic figures who inspired protestors. Nor did labor unions, professional syndicates, or other organizations fill the organizational role in a major way. And so it apparently is possible for a population to put enough pressure on an Arab authoritarian leader to step down even if it lacks strong opposition organizations and compelling leadership.
Tunisia has its own peculiarities—a population prosperous and educated enough to have high expectations, more equality of the sexes than exists in other Arab countries, and a relatively weak Islamist political movement—that undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the Jasmine Revolution occurred there and not elsewhere, and that it had a strikingly liberal and secular countenance. It is far from certain where Tunisia will go from here, and whether the country will move smoothly from a revolution with relatively little bloodshed to a truly democratic political system.
Still, whatever happens from now on, the Tunisians have taught all observers at least three unforgettable lessons: first, widespread economic grievances such as youth unemployment can indeed quickly translate into specific demands for political change, and second, this can happen even in the absence of strong opposition organizations. The third lesson of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was perhaps the most memorable of all: when long-postponed change finally comes, it is often startling how relatively little effort and time it can take.
Michele Dunne is editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.